The Pinhoti Trail is one of the premiere hiking and mountain biking trails in the Southeast. From its northern terminus at the Benton MacKaye Trail, the Pinhoti stretches south and west, deep into central Alabama. In all, there are 339 miles of trail split almost 50/50 between Georgia and Alabama, with much of the trail being true singletrack that winds through dense forests of pine and rhododendron. Thankfully, nearly all of the Pinhoti is open to mountain bikes. I have ridden all of the Georgia Pinhoti–most of it during a 3-day bikepacking trip from Cave Spring to Ellijay, GA–and several of its key sections more times than I can remember. Sections 1-3, near Mulberry Gap, are some of the finest riding in the state and comprise one of my go-to loops for long days. But if you’re after the toughest, most technical chunk in Georgia, look no further than Snake Creek Gap.
This section, located near Dalton, GA, is characterized by stupid-steep climbs from flat valleys that then lead you to technical ridge riding. If you’re able to sneak a peek while negotiating the endless rock gardens atop the ridges, there are beautiful views out into the surrounding rural farmland. It is truly unlike any other trail in Georgia.
The Snake Creek Gap Time Trials
Snake Creek Gap is not only a name for one section of the Pinhoti, it’s also the name of a long-running series of races put on by the Northwest Georgia chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. For the past 12 years, riders from across the Southeast and beyond have lined up to test themselves on the brutal course. After many years of maintaining the status quo, the organizers made some big changes for the 2016 edition. Instead of the typical 3-race series held in January, February, and March, it’s been reduced to two events; a 50-mile option is now offered in addition to the 34- and 17-mile routes; and riders must now find their own way to the start.
Personally, 2016 will be my seventh time competing in the Snake Creek Gap Time Trials (SCGTT). The first time I did the race, back in 2008, I rode the shorter 17-mile course, in 2009-10 and 2012-2014, I rode the 34-mile course. So for 2016, I opted to give the new 50-mile course a try. My reasons were twofold. For one, we’ve covered the 34-mile event before, and two, it would also give me the chance to ride the (new to me) Dry Creek trail system.
Don’t Mess with the Snake
The Snake can and will bite you, as I’ve been reminded of several times. This is a very technical point-to-point trail in a remote area, so if anything goes wrong here, you’re going to be walking. A long ways. Because of this, I typically overpack compared to other rides of a similar length.
I run tubeless and I always carry a spare tube with me. But for the Snake, I carry two tubes. And patches. In addition to CO2 cartridges, I bring a quality hand pump. It doesn’t end there, either. I also bring brake pads, quick links, spare cleat parts, a derailleur hanger, chain lube, zip ties, and Gorilla tape. That may sound like overkill, but I’ve needed each and every one of these things at some point on this trail. I’ve double-flatted, lost cleats, smoked brake pads, and in a particularly-memorable race, I broke my saddle clean off the rails. With some good old American ingenuity, I was able to lash it back to the post using the aforementioned zip ties and Gorilla tape and finish. Since the race is run early in the year, weather is often a wild card. I know what you’re thinking, “Georgia doesn’t have a winter.” But you’re wrong. True, while our winters tend to be relatively mild compared to, say, Nebraska, but I’ve raced the Snake when it was in the teens, snowing, sleeting, and raining (all on the same day). Or it might be 60 degrees with bluebird skies–you just never know. If the weather looks at all iffy, don’t chance it. At the very least, bring a shell or vest you can use in an emergency. You may be comfortable while you’re riding, but if you have a mechanical and you get cold while fixing it, your day can go sideways in a hurry.
The New Route
You would think that 34 miles of the Snake would be more than enough for most people. I, for one, had never felt the race needed to tack on additional miles. Those 34 miles see you cross over six–yes, six–mountains and climb around 6,000 feet. Sounds like plenty to me. When I asked NWGA SORBA President, Larry Vanden Bosch, about the 50-mile option, he told me it was added at the request of racers, and also to keep things fresh. I was dubious that there would be much interest in a 50-mile mountain bike race this early in the year. After all, winter isn’t exactly known as the time of year when folks are going HAM on their bicycles. Imagine my surprise when I saw a huge queue of riders ready to take on the 50. Of the 319 racers that started in January, about 150 of them rode, or at least attempted, the longest course.
As mentioned earlier, I had never ridden the Dry Creek trail system. It opened in 2011, but it’s a solid 100 miles away from my house. That means dedicating an entire day to ride the trails. None of my friends had ridden it either, so the trails were off my radar. Well, after sampling 16 of the 26 miles in the system, I can say that I will be back. The trails were built through cooperation between the US Forest Service, a private contractor, and volunteer labor from NWGA SORBA, the Pinhoti Trail Association, and the Back Country Horsemen of Northwest Georgia. Volunteers from those last three organizations are also responsible for maintaining the trails.
Trail construction was top-notch, with just a few wet spots even after steady rains this winter. Unlike the actual Pinhoti Trail, there wasn’t much in the way of technical features. In fact, a good portion of what I rode could be considered buff. Climbs were rolling with gentle grades. Eventually I did come across some rock in the Dry Creek system, but even then it was nothing too taxing. It would be a great place to take novice to intermediate riders looking for their first “backcountry” experience. Like the Pinhoti, the trails feel remote with high ridges towering above you. But since it’s a series of loops, you won’t ever be too far from your vehicle should something go awry. Camping at the trailhead and exploring the Dry Creek system and riding some out-and-back rides on the Pinhoti Trail would make for a great weekend suited to a broad range of rider abilities.
I must admit that when news of all the changes to one of my favorite races was released, I was worried. I thought no one would want to race the 50 mile, only two races would decrease interest, and the lack of a shuttle would surely spell the end of the event after 2016. In an effort to find out the reasoning behind all the changes, I sent over some questions to Larry Vanden Bosch. As it turns out, there were some very practical concerns that were addressed. Since the Snake is a point-to-point race, where you start and where you finish are nowhere near each other. To handle this, the organizers used to transport you and your bike from the finish to the start, some 40 minutes away. How exactly do you transport upwards of 400 bikes and people? You get creative.
Volunteers built racks for flat bed trailers, and they even employed semi-trucks to haul the bikes. If you’ve never seen a semi packed with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bikes, it’s a sight to behold. As you might imagine, there’s not really a way to insure that kind of thing. Building all those racks took time and money, too, and volunteers got fatigued. Combating burnout is also the reason the event was trimmed to two races instead of three.
Volunteer burnout is a legitimate reason for some of the changes, and one I should have thought of considering I’ve experienced it myself. I have helped organize several races, and after a while I got tired of giving up my free time to make sure someone else has fun in the woods. I wanna go have fun in the woods myself–but I’m selfish like that. Now, it’s up to the racers to find their own way to the start. Once you finish, there are shuttle buses that will take you–just you, not your bike–back to the start to pick up your car. It makes things a little less than ideal for the racers, but greatly eases the burden on the organizers. Moving that many people and their bikes around wasn’t sustainable. Thinking about it dispassionately, the changes just make sense.
I have always been impressed with the seamless organization of the SCGTT, and 2016 was no different. Check in was easy, aid stations were well-stocked, and as always, chili and peach cobbler was waiting for the racers at the finish. If a few tweaks is what it takes for the Snake to remain a viable event going forward, I’m all for it. Sure, attendance may have decreased ever so slightly, but in this case, that’s actually a good thing. Like the organizers, I’ll take the quality over the quantity.
Big thanks to Larry, Conrad, Chris, Gennie, Gay, and all the volunteers from NWGA SORBA that help make the Snake Creek Gap Time Trial happen!